Asheville – City Council approved adding to their legislative agenda a request to change the way members are seated on the Asheville City School Board. For years, the members have been appointed by the city council. The process included submitting an application, answering essay questions, and answering questions live in a publicly-televised meeting.
This year, however, the council was under a lot of pressure to switch to having the members elected by the general population, which is the way all school districts in the state, except Asheville and Chapel Hill Carrboro, seat their board members. Then, somewhere along the line, the possibility of having a “hybrid board” of elected and appointed individuals swept into the debate.
Mayor Esther Manheimer stressed that the council was not able to change how the board is seated; the authority to do so is vested in the state legislature. The arguments sprang up during the process of selecting school board members, so, it was too late to change the law for this cycle. However, the legislative deadline was looming, so she wanted to get things rolling to effect change for a 2022 election.
Normally a call to change the way persons are seated in public office means, “We can’t get anybody to represent us the way things are set up.” Whether it’s increasing the number of commissioners from five to seven and transitioning to district elections, double-bunking incumbents of the other party or gerrymandering to consolidate some votes and dilute others during redistricting, or requiring or not requiring voter ID, it is usually a partisan affair. In this instance, the debate occurred not during public meetings, but in the media.
It started with a joint press release from the Asheville City and Buncombe County associations of educators, announcing they were endorsing three of the sixteen candidates. Several, including the three incumbents, were not considered for endorsement because they opted out of the associations’ process. In the end, endorsements went to Libby Kyles, a teacher and parent affiliated with Asheville City Schools for most of her life; Jacquelyn Carr McHargue, dean of students at UNC Asheville; and Pepi Acebo, a father of school children, PTO president, and school volunteer with a reputation for holding leadership accountable.
When the city council made the first cut, only one on the associations’ slate was a finalist. Council’s picks were the three incumbents, Joyce Brown, James Carter, and Patricia Griffin; McHargue; Michele Delange, a graduate student researching anti-racism in urban education at UNC Charlotte; Peyton O’Conner, director of Buncombe County Recreation Services; and George Sieburg, a former middle school teacher with extensive experience on the Asheville City Schools Foundation board. Stephen Blount had been selected but later withdrew his application over questions about his address.
During public comment, parents and candidates not making the cut in the appointment process slung serious allegations against the school board as presently constituted. Several complained about fiscal mismanagement that has led to the unpopular decision to sell the campus of Asheville Primary, a Montessori school. At a December school board meeting, auditor Michael Wike warned the board about burning through its fund balance with structural imbalances that, left unchecked, would force it to run at a deficit next year.
Others complained that Asheville City Schools has also burnt through its superintendents, hiring a new one every two to three years since 2014. The school system has the eighth highest per-pupil spending in the state, but a lot of the money goes to support its exceptionally large administration. Other complaints were about the board’s mismanagement of the COVID reopening, lack of transparency and misrepresentation of facts, and rubber-stamping instead of executing the powers legally granted them.
Jonathan Wainscott complained that the issue had been sprung on members of the public, without enough time for the Office of Equity and Inclusion to begin focusing its equity lens. He rattled off statistics about Asheville’s schools, how they collect a lot of money and still have the fifth largest achievement gap in the nation. “We’re paying a premium in Asheville … so the haves can have better and the have nots can get a vote or a task force.” He said it was time to consolidate city and county schools because the experiment wasn’t working.
In the end, the council voted 5-2 to inform the legislators of their support for switching to a hybrid model and expanding the board of education with four elected seats, three appointed by the council, and a chair appointed by the school board. Manheimer opposed the model because mentioning only “long-game concerns,” she said she doubted its efficacy as well as the legislature’s willingness to support it. Antanette Mosley opposed it because she thought it would work against equity and inclusion.
For their fallback position should the legislature not want to risk the hybrid model, the council voted 5-2 to inform them of their support for switching to an all-elected school board. Mosley held her ground, and Sheneika Smith thought taking the middle ground would be received with more satisfaction than going from one extreme to another.
Manheimer encouraged all to explain their positions so she could relay their sentiments to the legislative delegation. Recalling four years as a legislative attorney, she shook her head and rolled her eyes as she said, “It’s really hard to predict what will happen … There can be all types of issues that happen down there, and reasons that bills get changed, legislation gets modified…”